Reviewed by Jack Kimball
In Selected Prose John Ashbery is self-effacing, continually turning to textual evidence to deliberate over telling details and human ingenuity in the telling of details. Many of the essays take up a poetics of human accumulations, of "minute observation" and of "the strange position of elements." He writes of Marianne Moore, for example, as one absorbed in such particulars, "recognizing them as part of the rhythm of growth, as details of life possibly helpful in deducing the whole, in any case important as details."
In the influential middle sections of Ashbery's Selected Prose a central argument is upheld over a swath of subject matter. There are four essays in particular, dating from the middle 1970s, the period after Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror and before Houseboat Days, pieces which examine the verse of Kenward Elmslie and Elizabeth Bishop, a film by Jacques Rivette and a fake autobiography by E. V. Lucas and George Morrow, titled What a Life! Citing Raymond Queneau, Ashbery writes that the 1911 publication of Lucas and Morrow's collage of catalog pictures and co-authored text was "the moment of the first conjunction of scissors and glue-pot 'with disinterested ends in view.'" The complex specifics of Ashbery's appreciation fix on the "veiled" unease evinced through the autobiography's myriad details, a sort of collaged disquiet remarkable in both its obvious admixture of "gothic touches," and, more of interest, its sustenance as "it can be felt throughout in the dislocations, sometimes farcically broad but sometimes very slight." These dislocations parallel faculties of "tragic ambivalence" that "exists in all of us and is the core of the situation which Lucas and Morrow elaborated within the confines of their exiguous comic masterpiece."
Moving to headier comedy, Ashbery admires Kenward Elmslie's 1975 collection Tropicalism, not for its vision, which has "changed little" from earlier work, but for its "surer, stronger . . . elaboration," a vision and a "visionary poetry which proceeds not by describing but calling into being." That evocation is a matter of capturing data and supplying details, we may infer, but as Ashbery indicates in his essay on film maker Jacques Rivette, it's more than that, it's
a genius for rendering a viewer hypersensitive to details: the pattern of a woman's blouse, furniture, cars, flowers, the gait of a passerby. Since 95 percent of the film is details, and since we unexpectedly find ourselves in the position of reacting violently to them, it becomes quite an experience.
Ashbery's argument is further synthesized when he addresses Elizabeth Bishop. The crazed 'reality' that Lucas and Morrow evoke through collaged data is telescoped in a last line of Elizabeth Bishop's first poem from her first book: "More delicate than the historians' are the map-makers' colors." How is this so, Ashbery queries:
How could the infinity of nuances and tones which is finally transformed into history . . . prove less delicate . . . than the commercial colors of maps in an atlas, which are the product, after all, of the expediencies and limitations of a mechanical process? Precisely because they are what is given to us to see, on a given day in a given book taken down from the bookshelf from some practical motive.
Expediencies within limitations are part of what make poets "necessarily inaccurate transcribers of the life that is always on the point of coming into being." The contingencies then are formal and substantial for poets like Bishop and Ashbery for, as Ashbery views Bishop, there is "this continually renewed sense of discovering the strangeness, the unreality of our reality at the very moment of becoming conscious of it as reality." And there we will leave it, as Ashbery almost does. There are limits and then the details and their inaccurate transcription to be dealt with, interpreted, that is, to not quite disinterested ends. To substantiate this point, Ashbery borrows a metaphor from Bishop, "a sleeping ear." He writes:
--that is as good a metaphor as any for the delicate but imperfect instrument the poet has to use in order to construe the bewilderingly proliferating data of the universe that is continually surging up around him, threatening to submerge him at the moment he in turn threatens to pierce it through with a ray of interpretation.
Both that "threat" of interpretation and the "imperfection" of the poet's interpretive instrument shape Ashbery's repeated hesitations to pass definitive judgments in Selected Prose. True, one is struck by bits of pronouncement he off-handedly allows, criticism is the tail wagging the dog of poetry, for example, or not as debatable, the verb to witness is "pretentious and constrained" when it comes to describing a poet's activities. Nonetheless, the writing here is altogether less conclusive and less variegated a set of aesthetic propositions than in Ashbery's art chronicles, Reported Sightings. The subject matter in Selected Prose, poetry for the most part, is of course closer to a literature reader's bone--with fewer ephemeral or vernacular referents, it is less available to journalistic compression and visual deduction than topics on painting and art production.
Doubtless those engaged with poetry profit in having in one non-giant volume Ashbery's exemplary earlier pieces on Gertrude Stein, Giorgio de Chirico, Marianne Moore, Pierre Reverdy and, in particular, Raymond Roussel. As for another early piece, "A Conversation with Kenneth Koch," its co-brokered hilarity is a welcome interlude within Selected Prose that otherwise includes only written speech of Ashbery's. Exchanges between Koch and Ashbery veer toward a circus joust; you'll want to set aside a few hours to calculate the tonal shifts caught up in their high-wire act:
K.K.: Could you give an example of a very bad artist who explains his work very well?
K.K.: I guess you don't want to mention names . . .
J.A.: Some people might get offended, I don't see the point of that.
K.K.: Do you mean you're afraid?
J.A.: No. Just bored in advance by the idea of having to defend myself.
There are editorial minutiae worth mentioning. Since a chronology is enforced, why the gap between 1978 and 1983? The Index is incomplete: among others, Bill Berkson, Jim Brodey, Ron Padgett, and John Yau have been omitted. There are a few pieces that are too brief to be as useful or informative as they need to be, one on Ted Berrigan's The Sonnets, an introduction to Charles North, three paragraphs on Rudy Burckhardt. (Utility is a good standard here, as there are other short pieces that explicate as they introduce us to the extraordinary if lesser known in Ashbery's circle of interests--snippets on the poet Joan Murray and a most restrained obituary for Pierre Martory are two examples.)
A more substantive concern is the impression that the last third of the text comprises mostly incidental pieces: introductions, a preface, a forward, a short review for an anthology of essays by movie buffs. Looking over the potpourri of later selections, however, and considering their heft compared with other critical material in the text, I am reminded of Ashbery's remark on Raymond Roussel's juxtaposing objects "similar in appearance but not in size."
Attempting for a moment to contextualize links or ratios between subjects taken up in Ashbery's Selected Prose, overall, and Ashbery's acumen for critical assessment, I'll refer to his account of Roussel's "tumultuous impression of reality" that derives from, among other things, using plots as "pretexts for description" in Nouvelles impressions d'Afrique:
A group of Europeans has been shipwrecked off the coast of Africa. Talou, a tribal king, is holding them for ransom. In order to distract themselves until the ransom money arrives, the travelers plan a "gala" for the day of their liberation. Each contributes a number utilizing his or her particular talents, and the first half of the book is an account of the gala, punctuated by a number of executions which Talou has ordained for certain of his subjects who have incurred his wrath. The second half is a logical explanation of the preposterous and fantastic scenes which have gone before.
This plot carries the human force of allegorical logic: Constrained by politicos, mercenaries and killers, almost any topics for the critical or poetical imagination constitute useful distractions from surrounding tyranny. Using the plot as a template for understanding the breadth of and links between critical pieces in Selected Prose, one could go further and offer that each topic, heavy or light, "contributes a number" eliciting particular talents required to render it gala-worthy for one's liberation (whose day has not yet come). Surely this allegory is as "preposterous and fantastic" as a range of others from Samuel Beckett to Gilligan's Island, but the selected "scenes" or expositions of Ashbery's prose are not preposterous, emphatically not "pretexts for description." Ashbery piece by piece elaborates each with details that slip away from facile generality or inaccuracy, yet play down their own importance, a prose flowing with critical acuity that is daring in its emphasis on close reading, scrupulous in its specificity, and full of life.